If you had asked me two days ago what a perfect sequel was, I would have told you “The Empire Strikes Back.” Every time I see Empire, I’m utterly astounded at how sure-footed it is; how it literally reintroduces each of the main characters in a mini-sequence that’s just as exciting and interesting as the original Star Wars, then proceeds to turn each of those characters’ strengths into weaknesses. Is Luke a starry-eyed dreamer? Well, now that he’s a real Jedi, that’s a very bad thing. Is Han a smartmouthed rogue? Well, now his history is coming home to roost. In every way, including the ending, Empire Strikes Back really was the best sequel there ever was.
Now, however, I’ll add “Bioshock Infinite” to that list. Because it taught me how to do a different kind of sequel perfectly.
I still remember how stunning it was six years ago to say “Bioshock is a deconstruction of Ayn Rand’s philosophies”… but after descending into the capitalism-crazed, creator-worshipping undersea world of Rapture, you couldn’t deny it was the most popular bash of Objectivist thinking as you saw how Jack Ryan’s dream of creating his artistic refuge had fallen apart. The gameplay was unique thanks to the miniboss Big Daddies, but what really sold Bioshock was following this tarnished 1920s dream of a philosophy through its inevitable unwinding. I was far more thrilled at finding another audio log than I was at killing an enemy.
So when it came time to do the sequel, folks thought in Empire Strikes Back-style rehashes: how can we do more of the same, while making those elements seem new? And so we went back to Rapture with a twist, to battle the Big Daddies with a twist, and had another semi-twist at pretty much the same place in the plot, and… it felt warmed-over. Which is the failure mode of ESB sequels – you don’t manage to add enough new stuff, and it’s okay but it’s a faint echo.
Bioshock Infinite goes the more adventurous sequel route. “Let’s throw out literally everything,” it says. “No Big Daddies, no underwater city of Rapture, no Ayn Rand – what’s thematically like those, though?” And so Bioshock Infinite took another, bolder route – exploring the concept of American exceptionalism.
Which is, frankly, tough to do. The problem with a thematic sequel is that themes are nebulous, and often unsatisfying, and most “Let’s start again” sequels felt like different, less interesting films. And so I’d never had a real success in this department to compare to. But if Bioshock Infinite is a warm, sunny baseball park with happy white kids playing a pleasant afternoon game on a Sunday afternoon, then the game itself is one of Babe Ruth’s called shots.
For once again, you investigate a mysterious city – but this one is Columbia, floating above the clouds! And whereas Rapture was dark, Art Deco, and in decay, Columbia is at the height of its powers, large, grassy, idyllic, populated by barbershop quartets and well-behaved ladies in hoop skirts, eating cotton candy. The inhabitants literally worship the Founding Fathers, kneeling before large statues of Washington and his Sword, Franklin and his Key, and Jefferson and his Scrolls. And, of course, they worship the Founder, the religious zealot who created this bold vision of America.
You’re here to erase some debts and find a girl. And unlike the silent protagonist of Bioshock, you have a voice – you’re a hard-bitten ex-soldier who says things you may or may not agree with. And eventually, you find the girl and have adventures.
I won’t get into the plot overmuch, but I will say that it’s incredibly ambitious, the kind of weirdness explained that outdoes Inception and makes Lost look like a tangle of strings. By the time you’re done, you’ll be amazed at the audacity of the plot, which winds its way through time in a way that involves no less than four parallel plots coming together to mesh into something approaching an honest answer. Not every bit of oddness is explained, but so much of it does make sense once you know the key that Bioshock Infinite outdoes any sci-fi television show I can think of to date in terms of neatly tying things together… and I’m a Babylon 5 fan.
Yet it feels coherent. This is Bioshock. It’s not the Bioshock you knew, but all the elements are in place. It’s the same, but different.
As for the gameplay, it’s probably about 90% tuned. The controls are slightly twitchy for what they’re trying to do. The end goal is to ride the overhead rails of Columbia, attaching yourself to a rollercoaster that winds its way through the complex levels and having a firefight along the way… But the controls aren’t tuned enough. You speed along so fast that there’s literally not enough time to aim at the targets you want, and they’re annoyingly late in that you’re trying to dismount onto a villain for a power attack, and instead lamely land three feet in front of him, facing the wrong way.
Add that to the fact that this game loves its smoke effects – your gun actually fogs your vision, on top of fog – so it’s hard to tell where shots are coming from. And then your companion throws you power-ups in mid-battle, which is helpful but the camera stops to turn at her so you know just who gave you that bottle of salts, and so it means that combat is often a struggle to stay facing the right direction.
That said, fighting is still good when you’re on the ground. But the aerial sequences seemed closer to luck than to skill, and the tremendously frustrating last level (sadly) relies on so much aerial fighting I dropped the level to “Easy” and felt thoroughly justified.
But Bioshock Infinite doesn’t need the 100% tuned gameplay of, say, a Diablo III, where the enjoyment is all centered in the gameplay. There’s one long sequence in Bioshock Infinite where all you do is walk up a long hill, press a button and wait for a minute, then do that two more times. Then you go back down that exact same slope, except faster and without the button pressing. And yet that sequence is one of the most thrilling moments in Bioshock Infinite, for the tale you’re walking through is so engrossing that you don’t even care that there is literally zero gameplay challenge in it. It’s a testament to the power of story, which takes the mundane and makes it riveting.
So from now on, when asked what the best sequel ever is, I’ll ask, “Which kind of sequel are we talking here?” Because Empire Strikes Back did the “more of the same” perfectly. Bioshock Infinite does the “raze the old stuff to the ground and build anew” perfectly. And both, I think, will be landmarks of their media.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.